“The Reunification of the Two Parts of the Russian Church, Abroad and in the Homeland, is a Great Good”
Has parish life in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia changed after the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion? We discussed this question with His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York:
Vladyka, five years have now passed since the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and you have been First Hierarch of the Church Abroad for three years now. Has life for Orthodox Christians abroad changed during the years of communion with the Russian Orthodox Church?
The reunification of the two parts of the Russian Church, abroad and in the Homeland, is a great good. We now have the fullness of joint celebration of divine services, in communion with the hierarchy of the Local Russian Church, with the clergymen who visit various countries. When we bishops, clergymen and laity, come to Russia or travel to other countries, we can participate in the fullness of ecclesial communion, visit the great monasteries, the holy sites of the Russian Orthodox Church. This gives us spiritual strength in our efforts abroad: educating people, providing spiritual nourishment and furthering the Orthodox mission.
Vladyka, you were born in North America, to a family of immigrants. Where were your parents from?
My parents were from the Volhynia oblast in Ukraine. During that period of its history, Volhynia was part of Poland, so my parents went abroad, to Canada, from the Polish state.
Were your family’s traditions Orthodox? After all, Poland is a Catholic country.
My parents, our people, preserved the Orthodox faith. It was during this period that a movement arose to preserve the flock in Volhynia from intrusion by other traditions.
At the time, those who immigrated to Canada moved to unsettled forest lands. Ukrainians often gathered in the same areas and preserved their social life. First of all, they founded church communities and parishes and built churches. Life revolved around the Church, which united everyone, providing consolation and strength.
Although there were few priests, they would come once or twice a month, and for the first few years it was very difficult, but the faith gave us strength.
For many bishops, the path to the Church is complicated, yet you chose this way right away. Was this a personal choice or was that what your parents wished for you?
I think that the Lord Himself arranged it. We lived in a desolate place, we had a farm, and since childhood I beheld nature’s beauty. I always had the thought: this world was created so beautifully, that God must exist. Then there is the beauty of the church, of divine services, of icons, all of this amazed me with its splendor, and my soul caught fire, and so the desire to become a priest began at an early age.
Was there a person in your life, a spiritual father, who directed you towards your podvig?
Yes. When I was a child, Archbishop Panteleimon, Ruling Bishop of Canada, would come and serve. Because there was a shortage of priests, he often visited our local Holy Trinity Church and performed divine services. For me, he was the ideal example of a clergyman. He gave me a blessing to enroll in seminary. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to do so at the time; but after a while, I got the chance in another seminary. This was at Holy Trinity Monastery in New York State, where I enrolled in Holy Trinity Seminary in 1967.
Vladyka, you have now been Primate for three years. How are you able to resolve problems in the Orthodox Church in the diaspora, and which of these prove most difficult?
Church life is complicated, and the problems we face we cannot handle alone, so we try to overcome them through prayer, through appealing to the Lord’s help. Important matters are discussed at meetings of the Synod of Bishops, at Councils of Bishops, which are held every two or three years.
The Act of Canonical Communion of the Churches was not accepted by everyone abroad. Is schism still a problem?
I must say that a small number of liberal clergymen did not accept this. There are believers who were hesitant at first, but then returned to unity. We are very saddened that there are priests who did not understand the importance of ecclesiastical unity. Some out of ignorance, or from isolation, for instance, in South America. Some felt personally insulted.
What kind of insult?
I think that the situation in South America, for instance, is very difficult. For a long time, they had no archpastoral care, and people lived by their preconceived notions. They could not see that the Russian Church was being reborn, that is, it had full freedom, that the government was no longer persecuting the Church, on the contrary, it helps restore churches and monasteries. Some people are simply uninformed.
There is a great deal of contradiction on the internet reflecting the opinions of clergymen and representatives of the Church in South America and laypersons abroad on your work. They think that your position as First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is not independent, it relies too much, maybe, on your relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. They feel that the Primate of the Church Abroad must be more demanding. How firm must the First Hierarch of the Church Abroad be in his actions? How should such firmness be manifested?
I think they are unhappy that we bishops, as a united group, decided that the time had come to reunify with the Mother Church, within the Fullness of the Local Russian Church. They hoped that we would reject the path of unity and remain alone, as it was the preceding seventy years. But that was a condition of forced isolationism in order to protect the Church’s interests, to protect the flock. But when the proposal to reunite came, we decided to do so at a Council of Bishops. It is a sin to separate oneself from the unity of the Church for personal reasons.
Has parish life in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia changed after reunification?
I think that our parish life has remained the same, but the emigration of Russians from Russia and other countries has proven a great support for us, for our parishes have been filled with these people in many places.
Parish life in general is different from that in Russia, because we live among the heterodox, non-Orthodox people. Our church communities are like oases in a foreign land, they support people abroad, many of whom feel lost.
Another particularity of our parish life is that we have fewer people in each parish, and the priest knows almost all of them. That means greater contact between the priest and his flock. And not only priests, but bishops, too. This strengthens the inner unity of the believers and their bishop and priest. As a result, we have greater cohesion. We always have refreshments together after services in many parishes, which brings people together, everyone gets to know each other, find common points of discussion, and so ideas are formed to organize meetings, conferences and cultural events.
In your opinion, are there any external reforms in church life not proposed by the hierarchy?
I don’t think any particular reforms are needed, we simply need to strengthen church life. First of all, the catechization of believers on the parish level, we must not only teach children but adults, too. In our case, we must pay special attention to people from the outside who come to us, in every country we must open the doors of the Church to those of other religions, especially in America, where there are many immigrants and native-born Americans who find Orthodoxy through our parishes, by reading religious literature in English, French and other languages.
The Russian Orthodox Church is actively considering translating divine services into Russian in order to attract more people, so that all Orthodox people of Russia who have long attended divine services, would understand what is being read. What do you think?
Our situation is different. Young people study in college, school, they know the local tongue, so that we often have to use English or the vernacular, alongside Church Slavonic. As far as Church Slavonic, I think some terms can be adapted closer to Russian. But changing over completely to Russian could cause discontent among many. So this is a matter to be decided on a conciliar basis.
God help you in your service. I ask for your prayers, and thank you for your time.
May the Lord preserve you.
- Oleg Petrov